by Frank Schnittger
Thu Mar 12th, 2020 at 03:14:27 PM EST
The Covid-19 crisis is reaching a new phase in Ireland even though, to date, there has only been 61 confirmed cases and one death of an elderly patient with a pre-existing terminal illness. Update [2020-3-12 22:52:5 by Frank Schnittger]: there were 27 new cases in the Republic and 2 in N. Ireland today, resulting in a new total of 90 cases.[/update] The government has just announced a nationwide closure of schools, colleges and child care facilities and strongly recommended all indoor meetings of more than 100 people and outdoor meetings of more than 500 people should be cancelled.
This is in stark contract to the UK where the Cheltenham racing festival with many thousand spectators is going ahead as I write, and also to N. Ireland where no such measures have been announced despite the fact that the outbreak there is at least as serious as in the rest of the island.
The government have also announced a 3.1 Billion emergency aid package for people and businesses impacted by the crisis. On a per capita basis this amounts to almost 630 per person,which compares compares with just 21 in the US and 124 in Italy. Talks on government formation and all meetings considered non-essential have been postponed and President Trump has announced a travel ban on all Europeans from the Schengen area (excluding Ireland and the UK).
Fintan O'Toole: None of us is safe from virus unless all of us are safe (Subscriber only) reminds us that Covid-19 has shaken us out of the complacent delusion that health is a private concern.
This recognition [that health care is a communal concern rather than a private matter] led to what historians call the "great sanitary awakening" of the 19th century. It led from sewage systems to clean water, from mass inoculation to universal national health services. It led, in social democracies, to sick leave. (One of the reasons the United States will be hit so terribly by Covid-19 is that this revolution never fully took hold there: 35 million workers have no entitlement to sick pay. They will go to work because they have to and they will spread the virus.) It is impossible to disentangle social justice from hygiene.
But this tide has been ebbing. The idea of health has been privatised and commodified. Hygiene, a public good, has been replaced by lifestyle, a personal choice. It is not about collective systems and behaviours - it is about my diet, my exercise regime, my body. These are, of course, good and proper concerns: not all killer diseases are communicable. But the irony is that this shift has been made possible only by the success of the communal systems. The very effectiveness of public health programmes - notably the virtual eradication of old killer infections in the developed world - has allowed us to take them for granted. The most bizarre symptom of this complacency is the anti-vaccination movement among the privileged - only those who have no memory of the devastation of ordinary lives by TB or polio or whooping cough can indulge this egotistical hysteria.
Meanwhile queues are forming outside some supermarkets with pasta and toilet paper disappearing off the shelves faster than they can be restocked. Working parents who cannot work from home are wondering how thy can continue to work with no childcare services and schools open. Small businesses - and the tourist and hospitality industries in particular - are wondering how long they can survive as their sales implode. Most meetings and events have been cancelled and travel severely curtailed.
The Irish economy has been riding high despite the looming threats of Brexit, trade wars, global corporate reform and a slowing global economy with GDP growth last year coming in at 5.5% and growth for this year had been projected at 3-4%. The government has been running a small surplus in the past few years and this is now available for emergency funding for the health care services and sick pay for those unable to work due to a need to self-isolate. Employment has risen to an all time high but everyone expects a big crash as a result of this crisis. Many small businesses will not survive despite the extension of loans and business supports by the government and a more supportive attitude from the banks.
It is of course still possible that this is all a major over-reaction and that "normality" will return sooner rather than later. I wouldn't bet on it though. It may not result in deaths anything like what occurred during the "Spanish Flu" outbreak after World War I which resulted in more deaths than the war itself, but the economic disruption will still be considerable.
Leo Varadker has estimated that, ultimately, 60% of the Irish population could get the disease which would result in c. 85,000 deaths in Ireland alone assuming a 3.4% mortality rate. Many are hoping that is a worst case scenario. It is a forecast in stark contrast to Donald Trump's assertion that the coronavirus threat is "totally under control." His strategy of closing boarders long after the virus has arrived on USA shores seems as blinkered as the rest of his policies.
The British government is reportedly considering a Malthusian strategy of allowing the infection to rip through the populace in the hope that the crisis (and economic disruption) will be shorter lived in consequence. That would be a strategy akin to what they pursued in Ireland during the Great Famine 1845-9 which was widely seen in British ruling circles as a necessary correction of an over populated countryside. It reduced the population of Ireland by 2 Million, or 20-25% through a combination of death and emigration and enabled (largely) British landlords to create large estates for their agriculture and pleasure. Let's not go there again.